Art Lifestyle Personal Growth

The Amateur’s 4-Step Guide to Viewing a Painting

When deciding on the best way to spend a rainy Sunday in London, the National Gallery naturally made it to the top of the list (plus, it’s free activity in a highly expensive city!) Boasting a collection that spans 600 years, the most orderly and obvious starting point was the earliest 13th-century section and moving on through to later works.

600 years and a few hours later, I finally managed to figure out the way that worked best for me to view a painting, and I thought I’d share it with you. It only took catching a bit of a guided tour, juggling an audio guide and smartphone and a notebook to figure this out.(Also yes, I know the fact that I did all this for no reason related to being an art student makes me sound like a complete nerd.)

If, like me, you are not an expert in art, but are interested in getting the most out of a painting, here is a suggested method. Bear in mind that it is by no means a rule; art is experienced and understood in different ways (which is the beauty of it!).

  1. Let your eyesight be your guide. Walk into room and first look around to see what catches your attention. Unless you want to spend all day at a gallery on your feet, this is probably a better method than going to each painting around the room in an orderly fashion. Rather than feeling obligated to view each painting, you can go right to the ones that “speak to you” more. You’ll focus more on the quality of art-viewing experience over quantity.
  2. Let is speak to you. Avoid looking at the details on the artwork label card if you can. Instead, take a minute to scan and form your own opinion, asking yourself why you find this painting compelling? Is it the colours, the subject, the symbols or the style? What story is it telling you? What emotions does it make you feel?
  3. Get the details. Now read the label card, with the description of the painting. Some labels offer the context of the painting and details of composition that you may not have noticed previously. To enhance the experience, you can use an audio guide to help understand the history and the artist’s methods. If you’re not a fan of sporting the unfashionable earphones of museum audio guides, leverage your smartphone and Google the painting — you’ve got the entire Internet at your fingertips! (Also, there will soon be an app that will function like Shazam for art). Between guided tours, audio guides, artwork labels and even your smartphone, there are plenty of ways that you can get acquainted with a painting.

Bonus tips:

Prep before you start. Ask the Information desk if they suggest starting in a particular area of the gallery, or paying special attention to specific well-known pieces.

Be a nerd! If something sparks your curiousity (a subject, an artist, a style), take a photo of the description card to remind yourself to look into it further later. Art becomes more interesting when you look into it… and after all, what is the purpose of art if it is not to spark your curiousity, evoke emotional reactions and promote contemplation?

Bring a notebook. Nothing makes an experience more tangible than writing down the details. Write down the names of any artists or paintings you are interested in learning more about, and any details of the painting that really struck a chord. It will also help you remember the painting more.

Take your time. Don’t feel the need to rush through each room. Ideally, you want to give yourself 3 hours so that you don’t feel compelled to wrap up before your next commitment.

Remember, you do not need to be an art expert to enjoy art. Everyone has a unique response to art, and your personality and experiences will lead you to interpret a piece differently than the person next to you. Therein lies the beauty of art!

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